Art Eyewitness Essay:
Samuel Palmer's Mystical Landscapes
By Ed Voves
If you speak to hunting or fishing enthusiasts, it isn't the deer or the trout that they "bag" which really resonates in their recollections. It is the "one that got away."
The same is true for art lovers. Of the special exhibitions that I could not manage to visit, the Metropolitan Museum's 2006 exhibition of the art of Samuel Palmer sticks in my mind as "one that got away."
In early June 2021, my wife and I went to New York for a visit, to the headquarters of the auction company, Sotheby's. We went specifically to see a collection of manuscripts and literary works relating to the celebrated Brontë family. Among the objects on view was a rare draft of poems, composed and written by Emily Brontë, which inspired the eventual decision of the Brontë sisters to publish their epic novels.
Another gallery at Sotheby's featured an exhibition, Fine Line: Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries. Anne and I peeked in and were surprised to find that we had the gallery to ourselves.
Even more amazing was the presence of a watercolor by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). Moreover, this signature work dated to Palmer's fabled years when he lived and worked in the "valley of vision" of Shoreham, Kent.
The Palmer watercolor on view at Sotheby's was one of his darkly-hued "Blacks" or "moonshines." It is entitled A Shepherd Leading His Flock under the Full Moon, painted in 1829-1830.
Palmer often painted such works entirely with black and brown watercolors, sometimes with touches of India ink. Occasionally, Palmer mixed gum arabic with his colors to give added definition and texture to his works which deliberately reflected his love of medieval art.
Not surprisingly, Palmer's compositions usually depicted the the hours of twilight or night with the moon prominently overhead. Palmer was a vigorous and expert - practitioner of scratching-out the light areas in these nocturnal paintings, thus letting the heavy paper or card stock provide the color of moonlight or the lingering rays of the setting sun.
A Shepherd Leading His Flock under the Full Moon was on view at Sotheby's for a very practical reason. It was being advertised for sale at an upcoming auction, to be held in London. The appraisal price was £700,000 to £900,000. When the final bid was made and the gavel sounded on July 7, 2021, Palmer's "moonshine" had sold for £1,588,000, twice the low estimate.
Such an astronomical sum would have been inconceivable to Samuel Palmer. He regarded the London art market as a disagreeable "pit." During his years in rural Shoreham,1825-1833, Palmer aimed to use a small financial legacy to create a haven for idealistic artists where "the beautiful was loved for itself."
Among Palmer's closest friends and a frequent visitor to Shoreham was George Richmond, who later created a celebrated portrait of Charlotte Brontë. He did the same for Palmer, complete with the "biblical" beard and flowing hair which he affected during the Shoreham years.
Palmer's vision, however, soon had to compete with reality. Frequent rejection of his "primitive" paintings by the Royal Academy led, remorselessly, to the dwindling of his funds and the eventual dispersal of the "Ancients" as his band of brother artists called themselves.
I might have regarded my one-on-one encounter with Samuel Palmer at Sotheby's as a similarly brief, if rewarding, episode. But another incident soon revived my interest in this fascinating, mystical artist.
Shortly before 11:30 PM on September 14th, I glanced up at the night sky from our front porch. I was stunned to see the moon, very-low to the horizon, to the southwest of our home. It appeared to be setting, though it was far too early and in the wrong place for that to be happening. The moon, blood orange in color, appeared to be skewed by the diagonal shadow over its upper reaches.
It was an eerie, unsettling image. Anne gamely took a couple of photos for the record. Neither of us could remember ever seeing the moon that low, that color, in that position at that time in the evening.
No doubt there is a scientific explanation for the moon's appearance on September 14th. But I did not pursue the matter because my thoughts were already turning to Samuel Palmer. It was "moonshines" like this which stimulated him to create singular, unforgettable works of art such as the one I studied at Sotheby's.
Samuel Palmer came of age during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when the first, disturbing implications of industrialization were becoming impossible to deny. It was a very unsettled era, much like our own, two centuries later.
Born in 1805, Palmer early displayed notable artistic promise. Beginning in 1819, he had landscape paintings in watercolor accepted for display at the Royal Academy. But this great success at such an early age did not lead to the expected step of formally enrolling in the Royal Academy or working in the studio of one of the RA's leading painters.
A deeply sensitive youth, Palmer was consumed by a classic religious faith/doubt struggle. Then, on October 9, 1824, Palmer was introduced to William Blake. Palmer's outlook on life, art and spiritual destiny shifted onto a high, transcendental, plateau after meeting Blake, the "prophet" of British art. This encounter set him on the path to Shoreham, Kent, twenty miles to the south of London, where he founded his now famous art colony.
At this point, I want to recognize the great research into Palmer's life by William Vaughn, the noted British art scholar, who was the co-curator of the 2006 Metropolitan Museum exhibit. Vaughn is also the author of the definitive book, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall, published in 2015, by Yale University Press. It is a little late to do a book review, but this magnificent volume needs to be acknowledged as foundational for understanding Palmer and appreciating his art.
It is not my intention to write a biographical essay on Palmer by drawing upon Vaughn's intensive study and brilliant commentary. Rather, I am offering some reflections on why Palmer's art is so appealing in troubled times.
Palmer's reputation, of limited influence while he lived, was revitalized by a landmark exhibition in 1926. Palmer's mystical landscapes struck a chord with the "Lost Generation" of World War I. In 1947, with London still devastated by the World War II "Blitz", a major study of Palmer's years at Shoreham sparked a second revival. In an age marked by pandemics and global strife, we now find ourselves searching for answers, psychologically in need of a new "Samuel Palmer moment."
Two centuries ago, Palmer was in a similar state of doubt and anxiety. In a particularly insightful chapter of his book, Vaughn analyzes a rare, surviving sketchbook of Palmer's. Filled with pithy "notes to self" as well as drawings, it is a revelatory document, opening a window to the young Palmer's mind and soul.
The seventy-seven page sketchbook, dates to 1824-25, the period when Palmer was befriended by Blake. There are certainly Blake-like elements among the sketches, but the notes show Palmer to have been less a disciple of Blake than a kindred soul.
Palmer's notes and sketches can be studied online, via the website of the British Museum, where the actual sketchbook resides. The range of Palmer's ideas and observations is truly remarkable. Detailed, minute study shares the pages with visionary observations. Palmer recorded useful data, the texture of tree bark and the shape of leaves, along with thoughtful, often humorous, "memoranda" to spur himself on.
Palmer, however, is not easily bracketed with other artists. His art was similar to Blake's in spirit rather than in form. As Vaughn shows, Richmond and the others in the group only visited Shoreham for brief intervals. The Ancients never formed a "united front" in the way that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did, during the 1850's.
Palmer was always his own man and his own artist. Like many devout Christians, he was convinced that the hand of God could be seen in the natural world. John Constable likewise affirmed his belief in this idea of "intelligent design" when he asserted that "nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself ... We are no doubt placed in a paradise here if we choose to make it such …"
Read closely, there is a secular, earth-focused note to Constable's statement. Palmer would not have disagreed with making "a paradise here." However his artistic - and cosmic - vision reached beyond to where "nature has properties which lie still deeper, and when they are brought out the picture must be most elaborate and full of matter ... and be what would have pleased men in the early ages, when poetry was at its acme, and yet men lived in a simple, pastoral way."
Palmer envisioned using images of shepherds, plowmen and other county folk to promote traditional social values and Christian religious ideals. It was no easy task as the Industrial Revolution propelled Britain on an increasingly mechanized and urbanized course of development.
In 1832, political events challenged Palmer's hopes for a "a paradise here" and in the hereafter. The Great Reform Bill brought political power to the British middle-class. The rural land-owning aristocrats and the Church of England had to adapt -and so did Palmer.
The Shoreham experiment came to an end. Most biographies of Palmer effectively conclude at this point, with a brief afterward on his "disappointing" London-based career. While Vaughn extols the soulful, moonlit landscapes of the Shoreham years as works of special brilliance, he does not regard Palmer's later years as devoid of achievement.
Two points need to be emphasized in considering the "later" Palmer.
As Palmer adapted to the dictates of the Victorian art market, he displayed exceptional talent and versatility. Due to his lack of formal, Royal Academy training, portrait painting was not an option. Yet his landscapes compare favorably with other major British artists. Whether paintings like Near Underriver, Sevenoaks, Kent (painted in watercolor in 1843 after Palmer decided to concentrate on that medium) or etchings which he took-up in the 1850's, Palmer demonstrated a high level of mastery, indeed.
The second point is perhaps more significant. Although he no longer embraced the "wonted outlandishness" of the Shoreham years, Palmer never ceased experimenting with new, unconventional techniques. As a result, he was accused of eccentricity and of "excesses" similar to those of J.M.W. Turner. Palmer was perhaps quietly pleased at this last rebuke, as he always had high regard for Turner.
Implicit in such criticism is the fact that Palmer always found a way to impart some form of mysticism, some element of spirituality to his later works of art, paintings or etchings. In a world of conformity, hedged in by High Victorian materialism and Social Darwinism, Palmer continued to reserve a place where human beings could commune with God under the light of the moon.
Samuel Palmer, The Lonely Tower, c. 1880-81
Palmer made this revelation in 1827, early-on during the Shoreham years. And though he left his Kentish refuge in 1833, this experience of the presence of God in nature, traveled with him.
Such a "nook", the place in which human beings encounter divinity, can be found anywhere. Wherever the Spirit dwells, there this meeting may occur. In a moon-lit garden or in the night sky above your home, there God is.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.
Introductory image: Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) In a Shoreham Garden, c. 1829. India ink, with watercolor and gouach: : 28.2 cm x 22.3cm. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Samuel Palmer's A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon. Ca. 1829-1830. Black watercolor over black chalk; heightened with scratching out on card: 148 x 178 mm. Sold for £ 1,588,000 GBP on July 7, 2021 at the Sotheby auction, Fine Line: Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Detail of Samuel Palmer's A Shepherd leading his flock under the full moon,1829-1830.
George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) Samuel Palmer, c. 1829. Pencil, pen and ink: 9 3/8 in. x 8 in. (238 mm x 203 mm) National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Misses F.M. and E. Redgrave, 1927. NPG 2154
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) View of the Moon over Philadelphia, September 14, 2021.
Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star; bundles of corn and a farmer with staff in the foreground, c.1830. Watercolour and bodycolour, with pen and ink. varnished: : 197 mm x 298 mm. British Museum, 1985,0504.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Studies, formerly in a sketch-book of 77 sketches bound originally in sheep-skin, c. 1824.Tower and head,at left a tower surmounted by a weather-vane, crescent moon behind, at right the profile of an old man, c.1824 Pen and brown ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) Studies, formerly in a sketch-book of 77 sketches bound originally in sheep-skin, c. 1824 Studies of trees, three large, one small, in a lightly indicated landscape, c.1824 Pen and brown ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) The Harvest Moon, 1833. Oil and tempera: 22.1 x 27.7 cm. Yale Center for British Art
Samuel Palmer (British,1805-1881) Near Underriver, Sevenoaks, Kent, ca. 1843. Watercolor and opaque watercolor applied with brush, and ink and pen:10 3/4 x 15 1/8 inches. Rhode Island School of Design # 69.154.13
Samuel Palmer (British,1805-1881) The Herdsman's Cottage, 1850. Etching: Plate: 4 7/8 x 4 inches (12.4 x 10.1 cm) Sheet: 13 7/16 x 9 5/16 inches (34.1 x 23.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. #1985-52-22830
Samuel Palmer (British, 1805-1881) The Lonely Tower, c. 1880-81. Opaque watercolor over traces of graphite on board: 6 5/8 × 9 1/4 in. (16.8 × 23.5 cm.) Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gilbert Davis Collection. #: 59.55.984